Our Founding Fathers On Religion

THOMAS JEFFERSON

“I have ever judged of the religion of others by their lives…. It is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be read. By the same test the world must judge me. But this does not satisfy the priesthood. They must have a positive, a declared assent to all their interested absurdities. My opinion is that there would never have been an infidel, if there had never been a priest. The artificial structures they have built on the the purest of all moral systems, for the purpose of deriving from it pence and power, revolt those who think for themselves, and who read in that system only what is really there.”

Thomas Jefferson, letter to Mrs. M. Harrison Smith: Mrs. M. Harrison, August 6, 1816. From Gorton Carruth and Eugene Ehrlich, eds., The Harper Book of American Quotations, New York: Harper & Row, 1988, p. 492.

“A professorship of Theology should have no place in our institution (the University of Virginia.)”

Thomas Jefferson, letter to Thomas Cooper, October 7, 1814. From Gorton Carruth and Eugene Ehrlich, eds., The Harper Book of American Quotations, New York: Harper & Row, 1988, p. 492.

“During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”

Thomas Jefferson was our third president and author of the Declaration of Independence; Jefferson said:

“I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.”

He referred to the Revelation of St. John as “the ravings of a maniac” and wrote:

“The Christian priesthood, finding the doctrines of Christ levelled to every understanding and too plain to need explanation, saw, in the mysticisms of Plato, materials with which they might build up an artificial system which might, from its indistinctness, admit everlasting controversy, give employment for their order, and introduce it to profit, power, and pre-eminence. The doctrines which flowed from the lips of Jesus himself are within the comprehension of a child; but thousands of volumes have not yet explained the Platonisms engrafted on them: and for this obvious reason that nonsense can never be explained.”

“I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent.”

“And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a Virgin Mary, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter…. But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away [with] all this artificial scaffolding.”

Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, 11 April 1823, as quoted by E. S. Gaustad, “Religion,” in Merrill D. Peterson, ed., Thomas Jefferson: A Reference Biography, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1986, p. 287.

Jefferson expressed himself strongly on that larger apocalypse, the Book of Revelation, in a letter to Alexander Smyth of 17 January 1825:

“…….merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy, nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams.”

Apocalyptic writing deserved no commentary, for “what has no meaning admits no explanation”; therefore, apocalyptic prophecies associated with Jesus deserved and would receive no attention from Jefferson in his Life and Morals of Jesus.

E. S. Gaustad, “Religion,” in Merrill D. Peterson, ed., Thomas Jefferson: A Reference Biography, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1986, p. 287.

Jefferson wrote voluminously to prove that Christianity was not part of the law of the land and that religion or irreligion was purely a private matter, not cognizable by the state.

Leonard W. Levy, Treason Against God: A History of the Offense of Blasphemy, New York: Schocken Books, 1981, p. 335

“This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate error so long as reason is free to combat it.”

Thomas Jefferson, to prospective teachers, University of Virginia; from George Seldes, ed., The Great Quotations, Secaucus, New Jersey: Citadel Press, 1983, p. 364.

GEORGE WASHINGTON

“Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind, those which are caused by difference of sentiments in religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing, and ought most to be deprecated. I was in hopes that the enlightened and liberal policy, which has marked the present age, would at least have reconciled Christians of every denomination so far that we should never again see the religious disputes carried to such a pitch as to endanger the peace of society.”

George Washington, letter to Edward Newenham, October 20, 1792; from George Seldes, ed., The Great Quotations, Secaucus, New Jersey: Citadel Press, 1983, p. 726.

The words “In God We Trust” were not consistently on all U.S. currency until 1956, during the McCarthy Hysteria.

James Madison

“Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise.”

James Madison, fourth president and father of our Constitution, was not religious in any conventional sense.

John Adams

“The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature; and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history. Although the detail of the formation of the American governments is at present little known or regarded either in Europe or in America, it may hereafter become an object of curiosity. It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses….”

John Adams, “A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America” [1787-1788]; from Adrienne Koch, ed., The American Enlightenment: The Shaping of the American Experiment and a Free Society, New York: George Braziller, 1965, p. 258.

The country’s second president, was drawn to the study of law but faced pressure from his father to become a clergyman. He wrote that he found among the lawyers ‘noble and gallant achievments” but among the clergy, the “pretended sanctity of some absolute dunces”. Late in life Adams wrote:

“Twenty times in the course of my late reading, have I been upon the point of breaking out, “This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!”

Benjamin Franklin

Delegate to the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, said:

“As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion…has received various corrupting Changes, and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England, some doubts as to his Divinity; tho’ it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the Truth with less trouble.” – He died a month later, and historians consider him, like so many great Americans of his time, to be a Deist, not a Christian.



Thomas Paine

“Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon, than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness, that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind.”

Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason, 1794-1795. From Gorton Carruth and Eugene Ehrlich, eds., The Harper Book of American Quotations, New York: Harper & Row, 1988, p. 494.

“Take away from Genesis the belief that Moses was the author, on which only the strange belief that it is the word of God has stood, and there remains nothing of Genesis but an anonymous book of stories, fables, and traditionary or invented absurdities, or of downright lies.”

Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason, 1794-1795. From Gorton Carruth and Eugene Ehrlich, eds., The Harper Book of American Quotations, New York: Harper & Row, 1988, p. 494.

“The most detestable wickedness, the most horrid cruelties, and the greatest miseries that have afflicted the human race have had their origin in this thing called revelation, or revealed religion. It has been the most dishonorable belief against the character of the Divinity, the most destructive to morality and the peace and happiness of man, that ever was propagated since man began to exist.”

Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason, 1794-1795. From Gorton Carruth and Eugene Ehrlich, eds., The Harper Book of American Quotations, New York: Harper & Row, 1988, p. 494.

Note:

William Stringfellow, lawyer and lay theologian, as quoted in the Dallas Times Herald, December 9, 1978, p. A-27, according to Alan F. Pater and Jason R. Pater, compilers and editors, What They Said in 1978: The Yearbook of Spoken Opinion, Beverly Hills, CA: Monitor Book Co., 1979, p. 447.

“The government has leverage on religious groups because of the tax-exemption privilege. Church leaders, eager for the church to be free to be the church, should ask for the removal of this privilege. If there were no tax privilege for religious groups, hucksters and people who are using religion as a cover for political movements would be discouraged.”